Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

A word of warning about all these Trump transition stories you are seeing

Transitions can be bruising experiences internally. There is a big difference between what a presidential candidate promises and what a president-elect can offer.

2699313100_5cc9c56c3e_z
2699313100_5cc9c56c3e_z

Journalists have to write stories about people running presidential transitions. It is part of the job description. They are only following orders.

But that doesn’t mean you, the Reader, must read or believe these stories.

I mention this because my experience in covering presidential transitions — only in the national security area — is that everybody seems to think that the people running them in various parts of the government will be influential in those areas for years to come. Yet I haven’t seen that to be true.

Journalists have to write stories about people running presidential transitions. It is part of the job description. They are only following orders.

But that doesn’t mean you, the Reader, must read or believe these stories.

I mention this because my experience in covering presidential transitions — only in the national security area — is that everybody seems to think that the people running them in various parts of the government will be influential in those areas for years to come. Yet I haven’t seen that to be true.

Why do transition staffers fade? My guess is that a big part of the job is saying “no.” For every person who gets a plum job, dozens more might have wanted it. So transition officials make a lot of enemies.

Also transitions can be bruising experiences internally. As we are already seeing with President-elect Trump, there is a big difference between what a presidential candidate promises and what a president-elect can offer. So there is a natural air of disappointment in a transition. Those who staffed the campaign in particular are likely to grow bitter as they see nice slots go to people who never lifted a finger to help the candidate, even though those outsiders may be far better suited for the job in question. I remember back in December 2008 that Obama campaign vets winced every time a Clintonite got a nice job.

That said, the nastiest transitions tend to be intra-party. (The Reagan to Bush handover was legendary.) By contrast, very few Obamites expect or want to work in a Trump administration, or would be welcome to do so. Vacating offices is easier when the occupant has no inclination to stay. In a changeover this extreme, the problem may be that when Trumpists knock on doors, they find nobody at home.

And even the people picked may not represent policy directions. Bush chose Colin Powell not to lead his foreign policy but to be a beard for it. Powell, being a good soldier, didn’t get that.

Image credit: Snapshots of the past/Flickr

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.